Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
It is on this psalm chiefly that the theory of the pilgrim odes is based. It tells its design in almost so many words, and actually refers to the ordinance which directed every male Israelite to visit the holy city three times a year. The poet stands in imagination or memory at the gates of Jerusalem. The journey is done, and at this moment the excitement and joy with which it was commenced are lovingly recalled. Then follow the impressions produced in the caravan of country strangers by the aspect of the city, the throngs of pilgrims pouring in at the several gates, the royal residences and courts of justice. At this moment the feelings of patriotic admiration and reverence get the better of mere wonder. The thought of the capital—capital political and religious—excites other emotions; and, as in so many instances of other pilgrims in connection with Jerusalem and of Rome, the prayer for the city’s welfare rises to the poet’s lips—a prayer which is none the less real because it reproduces literally the formal Oriental greetings which at such a time would be passing to and fro among the excited groups. The psalm, which shows only very slightly the step-like rhythm, is best arranged in couplets.
Title.—The addition of David is plainly a gratuitous conjecture. The LXX. knew nothing of it.
A Song of degrees of David. I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the LORD.(1) Let us go.—Or, we will go. This verse is inscribed over the portico of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Our feet shall stand within thy gates, O Jerusalem.(2) Our feet shall stand.—Rather, Our feet have been, and are now, standing. “Here we stand at last at thy gates, O Jerusalem.” “We must imagine the pilgrims arresting their steps to gaze about them as they reach the gates.
Jerusalem is builded as a city that is compact together:(3) This verse is somewhat perplexing. It is explained to refer either to the rebuilding of the city and reuniting of the parts which had been disconnected in the destruction, or, which is far better (see Introduction), is taken as a rustic’s impression on first seeing a compact city after being accustomed to straggling villages. The astonishment of Virgil’s shepherd is aptly compared: “Urbem quam dicunt Romam, Melibæe putavi, Stultus ego, huic nostræ similem.” But a far more satisfactory meaning is suggested by the LXX. They (comp. Symmachus) take the word rendered compact as a noun, meaning union. The verse then may run: Jerusalem, the (one) built like a city, union is in it together, i.e., it is the rallying point of all the tribes. (See next verse.)
Whither the tribes go up, the tribes of the LORD, unto the testimony of Israel, to give thanks unto the name of the LORD.(4) Unto the testimony.—This is erroneous. The words are parenthetical: “Thither go (or, must and shall go) the tribes, the tribes of Judah (it is an ordinance for Israel) to praise the name of Jehovah.” (See Exodus 23:17, Deuteronomy 16:16, to this regulation.)
For there are set thrones of judgment, the thrones of the house of David.(5) Thrones.—Jerusalem, at first a cause of wonder as a city, is now to the pilgrims a cause of admiration as the capital. The mention of the “House of David” itself disposes of the title, but does not prove that the monarchy was still in existence, since even the Sanhedrim might be said to administer justice from the throne of the house or successors of David. The administration of justice was the original and principal duty of a monarch in time of peace (1Kings 3:11, seq.). The marginal “do sit” gives the literal rendering of the Hebrew, which in this use of sit, where we should say in English stand, is exactly the provincial Scotch.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee.(6, 7) It is impossible in English to reproduce the effect of the original in these references to the usual greetings of the East, since at the same time they contain alliterations and a play on the name of Jerusalem. There is first the challenge to the body of pilgrims to give the customary salutation, and then it is taken up in a threefold wish, varied each time. Then follows the reason of this unanimous and hearty prayer: “Ask for the peace of the city of peace; prosperity be to thy lovers, peace within thy walls, prosperity in thy palaces.”
For my brethren and companions' sakes, I will now say, Peace be within thee.(8) Peace be within thee.—Here the formal greeting actually appears, that which greets every traveller in the East (John 20:19). (Comp. Luke 10:5.) The full form appears in 1Samuel 25:6.
Because of the house of the LORD our God I will seek thy good.(9) Because . . .—Now for the first time the religious motive of the pilgrimage appears, rendered all the more emphatic by being kept for the concluding verse.